Tomorrow marks 56 years since the murder of four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
In an act of terror intended to intimidate civil rights activists who used the predominantly African-American church as a rallying point and organizing hub, Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb under the building’s steps. It detonated at 10:22 a.m. on Youth Sunday, a day dedicated to the church’s young members, as the girls were getting ready for the service in a basement lounge.
During his eulogy for Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the attack “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetuated against humanity.” He sent a telegram to then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, telling the state’s top segregationist: “The blood of our little children is on your hands.” Ten days before the bombing, Wallace had railed against the civil rights movement to The New York Times, saying, “What this country needs is a few first-class funerals.”
At that time, violent attacks on the civil rights movement were common in the city dubbed “Bombingham.” And in the decades since, researchers have laid bare the lack of political will to convict the perpetrators. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover blocked prosecution of the case, and the FBI failed to turn over thousands of files to prosecutors, including audio surveillance tapes.
It wasn’t until 1977 that the first of four Klansmen behind the crime was brought to trial by the state attorney general and convicted. Two others were convicted in the early 2000s by federal prosecutors. A fourth died before being charged.
In 1987, the SPLC would win an unrelated, and unprecedented, civil lawsuit against the same Klan group behind the bombing – the United Klans of America – after its members murdered a black teenager in Alabama six years earlier. The $7 million verdict bankrupted the United Klans, finally putting an end to the group whose members had also killed civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo after the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
The church bombing did not slow the momentum of the civil rights movement. Instead, it became a seminal moment that galvanized the nation and propelled the movement forward. Ten months later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in public accommodations.
Today, a memorial named “Four Spirits” stands across the street from the church with the inscription “A love that forgives” – the title of the pastor’s undelivered sermon on Sept. 15, 1963.
During this moment of remembrance for these and all civil rights martyrs – those who fought and died for freedom – let us reflect on the words of Dr. King’s eulogy for the girls. And let us remember that deadly violence remains an all-to-common response to the ongoing struggle for civil rights in this country:
“[T]his afternoon, in a real sense [the four girls] have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.
“They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. … They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
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